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MSPnet Blog: “Questioned assumptions #4: Competitiveness”

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posted July 17, 2015 – by Brian Drayton

One of the consistent themes of education policy documents during the latest wave of “reform” is competition. This is usually not far away from references to market forces, innovation, etc. Every US president and candidate when addressing education will assert that a key goal of his or her regime will be to get the US back on top of some listing or other. (Tellingly, I think, we rarely hear that we should all be at the head of the world in the arts, or ethics, or compassion, or public health…).  Peter Greene’s blog,, has an extended and thought-provoking post on some of the many meanings of “competitiveness” and their implications for education reform.

His reflections were stimulated by a White House paper on “Jobs and the economy: Putting America back to work.”  The paper covers several aspects of policy, but the section on education is keynoted by the assertion that education is somehow the key to our staying Top Nation:

 To win the global competition for new jobs and industries, the United States must continue to have the best trained and most skilled workforce…..businesses need a strong, skilled workforce to succeed in a 21st Century economy. The Administration’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top initiative funded by the Recovery Act as well as the $650 million Investing in Innovation (i3) Program have helped drive important state and local educational reforms and are unleashing new market opportunities for learning technologies…

Not long after this, the report continues:

As one of our recent studies shows, STEM careers are in demand by American businesses… The President’s goal is to add 100,000 STEM teachers by 2015.

You can tell that such language means both more and less than it says, because nowhere is there a theory of action, a mechanism to link specific economic or other issues to the solution being proposed.  Suppose we had in fact recruited the 100K STEM teachers (without significant attrition from the existing STEM teaching force).  How would that boost our “competitiveness”?  Greene puts the issue this way:

Exactly what is the connection between passing PARCC and scoring a good middle class job?
Reformsters keep trying to frame the issue as an issue or worker worthiness. Surely our American workers would be better paid at better jobs if they deserved to be. The fact that they aren’t is proof that they don’t deserve to be…In other words, we have somehow taken a broad economic problems– the human costs of corporations that want to pay absolute bottom dollar for labor– and turned it into the workers’ fault.

What difference does it make if politicians and policy makers continue to judge education, and reshape education, on the basis of a dubious link with our country’s global status (or competitiveness, whatever that means)?    I think the misuse of “competitiveness” as the basis for education policy (or the abuse of education for purposes of political competition)  is important pedagogically, morally, and politically as well.

When education is construed first and foremost as a geopolitical and economic phenomenon, then policies — and then practices — are shaped to that end.  From it flow definitions of educational success and progress, which in turn  shape teacher evaluations, student evaluations, materials development, and much else about schooling.  The pedagogical costs can be found in these consequences.

The “frame” by which students are encouraged to make sense of their schooling experience is also shaped — to get a good job, get a good education, and this is what we mean by education….Yet as noted in numerous sources I’ve pointed to in blog posts over the past year, this logic just doesn’t work. So then what is school “for”?  If it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, and other potential values are crowded out by the economic/political mission, the potential for a broadly educated, engaged citizenry who understand their role in a democratic society — and are equipped to play it — is lost, and schools and schooling are threatened by the venom of cynicism.  Moral costs, rooted incurred through the loss of undeveloped human and social potential, are located in this area.

Both the pedagogical and moral costs have significant political consequences as well, as can be seen in the unwillingness of politicians, media leaders, and many citizens to act responsibly as part of the “reality-based community, ” (in the words of a George Bush aide as reported by  NY Times journalist Ron Susskind in 2004).  This willingness to avoid evidence when convenient has been typical of Homo sapiens behavior in all ages of the world, but it can be argued that its consequences are damaging on a global scale in this age of globalization.

As we enter another round of presidential politicking, my ears are tuned to detect how  the candidates construe the nature of education, its role in the health of the body politic and the qualities of life, and its potential to enable hopeful and intelligent engagement with issues of justice, conflict, ecological upheaval, and the slow, inexorable metabolism of institutions and societies, the dynamics of decay and rejuvenation.


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posted by: F. Joseph Merlino on 7/19/2015 12:12 pm

I suggest you check out this report by the OECD, The data make it clear that high cognitive skills, the kinds called for by the NCTM, NSTA, NRC AAAS, NGSS, CCSM standards, not mere educational attainment. is associated with great addition to a countries' future GDP as well as individual earnings.

OECD study

posted by: Brian Drayton on 7/20/2015 7:53 am

Thanks for posting this, Joe.
My reaction to this document: This is study is primarily a simulation study, and as I understand it posits an "endogenous growth model," which looks at possible growth in Country A if Country A's test scores rise a certain amount. It is remarkable how many statements of uncertainty there are in this study, but even if you grant that despite this, the modelers have made the right choices, there is still this: In the world we're living in, growth is not "endogenous." Another way of putting it is, higher cognitive skills may enable certain kinds of economic growth, but not necessarily where you might want it. Capital is mobile, and seeks to minimize the costs of production, and in a "knowledge economy" the principal cost will be labor. Much follows from this.
One of the apparent paradoxes of the recovery from the 2007-9 recession is that there has been far less job creation than anticipated. Much capital is not being reinvested, but rather being held ( a double penalty to most Americans, since the majority of gains have been to the upper 1-10%, and this has not produced the expected trickle-down.) It appears to me that those that are in a position to reinvest are waiting to see where to put the money.
In any case, though, Peter Greene would argue (and I agree) that GDP is not necessarily the most desirable measure of success.
None of this is to say that improving education is not an important thing to do; and I am all for better science and math education (and English and history and arts). I have spent my career to that end. But I think that the aims one has in mind shape the means one uses, and the metrics for evaluating the results.
So I continue skeptical of rationales for a particular reform that is motivated primarily on economic grounds, and ignores how the economy works.